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Merchant Navy – the Human Side – Prior to the 'Container Revolution'
By Barry Parsons
The term “Merchant Navy” was first used in Britain when the diverse and competing shipping companies came together for self preservation in convoys during the first World War. The name subsequently embraced all British shipping except the Royal Navy. The most important, but least considered, component of the Merchant Navy, are the crews without whose teamwork the ships could not operate.
The crew comprises three main departments. The Deck Department looks after the ship's navigation, stability, cargo handling and care of the open decks and hull. The Engine Room Department is responsible for all the complex machinery and the various “hotel services”. The Catering Department are the ship's house-keepers, not unlike hotel management ashore. The role of women crew members is still mainly restricted to the catering department of passenger-carrying vessels. Boys serve in the Deck or Catering departments, usually after a course at a pre-sea training school. They receive further 'training on the job' until their promotion at the age of 18.
Scrubbing the decks
Although the crews for ships operating in the UK / Australasia trades were engaged in Britain, they frequently included New Zealanders and Australians. A vacancy might occur “on the coast” as a replacement for someone promoted or transferred to another ship of the same company, or discharged sick or injured, or to replace a deserter – a crewman who had “jumped ship” to seek his fortune in a new country.
The New Zealand Shipping Company welcomed antipodean youngsters for training as potential officers in their cadet ships. Some of these remained with the Company long enough to become Captains. Other youths were assisted to travel to Britain for pre-sea training.
The majority of seamen lived and worked in harmony in their enclosed environmment. Toleration of others was widespread and many friendships were formed for the duration of a voyage. However, the image of a 'happy ship' could be shattered by clashes of personalities.
Traditionally the pay and conditions for merchant seamen were very poor and their officers did not fare much better. Improvements in food and accommodation were made after 1945 but UK wages remained low in comparison with those of most other countries. Many seamen allocated a portion of their income to be paid to their dependents. The cost of on-board expenses such as cigarettes, beer (not to boys!) and clothing would be deducted from the seaman's wages, further reducing the amount of spending money available when he stepped ashore. This enhanced the popularity of “the mish” (Seamen's Mission), especially to younger crew members with less developed financial management skills. The various missions in ports around the world offered a warm welcome to all seafarers. They provided refreshments, 'home comforts' and a place to relax as well as showing movies and arranged sporting fixtures.
The good times are those best remembered. Seafarers made friends, worked as a team with guaranteed employment and were paid for travelling the world. Their living standards were tolerable and wholesome food was prepared for them (but they enjoyed grumbling about it!). A frequent comment was “It's a great life if you don't weaken!”.
Photos - Michael Gifford-Moore's collection of photographs while serving in PAMIR voyages 7 & 8, Wellington to Vancouver. 1940s. Originals in MOWCAS collection